I was planning a vacation to Houston, Texas. I knew it wasn’t going to be the outdoor adventure I was used to, but I excitedly got online to see what the big city of Houston had to offer. I’ve always enjoyed science, automotive, and aeronautical museums. So, I was pretty excited to see they had a NASA museum, called Houston Space Center. I read a few reviews online, to see what people had to say. I was a little disappointed to see it had mediocre reviews; the main complaint being it was outdated. I figured to myself, it would be my first time going, so it certainly wouldn’t be outdated to me. This was added to the list of Must-Sees.
Once in Houston, my mother and my nephew accompanied me on this adventure. There was no mistaking our arrival to Houston Space Center, as we were greeted by two NASA jets and a rocket’s crew capsule near the entrance to the center. To make it even more exciting, once in the parking lot, a full size Boeing 747 with a space shuttle on it’s back dominates the view. Our tickets were purchased, and we were given a map. The first thing we saw when we entered the main entrance was a full-sized mock up of the Mars rover, Spirit, sans the solar panels. We took a left turn and found ourselves in the area devoted to the International Space Station. They had many displays that demonstrated the technology and design of the ISS and the purpose of their research. Some of the displays were interactive for children, letting them touch and move various components, such as drawers and storage compartments.
One of the more fascinating displays, for me, was an animated timeline that demonstrated how the ISS was constructed and the expansions that have taken place over the years. I was unaware how long and intricate the construction process was, with some modules being moved multiple times over the years, before reaching it’s final resting place. Next to the ISS display is an area dedicated to the late Space Shuttle program. The Space Shuttle area had an amazing display of space suits, some from the former Soviet Union’s space program. Next we found ourselves in the area dedicated to Mars exploration.
In trying to work our way over to the Boeing 747, we walked into the Starship Gallery. The Starship Gallery was dedicated to the Apollo, Saturn, and Lunar landing missions, with actual crew capsules on display. The main capsule is in the middle of the floor, which allowed us to walk around and get a close look. The heat scarring from re-entry into Earth’s orbit is forever scorched onto the capsule and is a testament to the extreme heat experienced during re-entry. One of the capsules is hanging from the ceiling, giving an amazing view of the bottom of the capsule’s burnt heat shield. From here, we wandered into the Skylab exhibit, the highlight of the Starship Gallery. I saw the film clips of the astronauts doing their tumbling acrobatics. I understood that Skylab wasn’t a tiny capsule-like vehicle, but had no idea just how massive the structure truly was. Seeing such massive machines is truly a wonder and humbling. From Skylab, it’s a short walk to the Boeing display.
Exiting the building out into Independence Plaza, visitors get walk around outside this gigantic Boeing aircraft. Everything about this aircraft is huge, but still maintains a look of swiftness and maneuverability. Standing on the ground and looking up at the Space Shuttle on it’s back leaves one feeling small. A tower next to these behemoths contains the staircase and elevator that brought us up to the Space Shuttle and the 747. The 747 is an educational encounter that explains how the Space Shuttle was transported and the safety measures taken to ensure safe transport. The next level, the Space Shuttle, gave us a peek into the inside of a Space Shuttle. A mock satellite was in the cargo bay and level two allowed us a chance to see the crew area and the cockpit above it. After having lunch in their expansive food court, it was time to take a tram ride.
One of the main attractions of Houston’s Space Center is a tram tour of the NASA research facility, which includes the legendary, Houston Control. Dozens of nondescript buildings with large empty parking lots (we went on a Sunday) dotted the landscape. These building are where NASA was developing the technologies for tomorrow’s space programs or studying current data. The tour guide informed us that during the weekday, several thousand employees fill up the various parking lots. Mission Control lies in the heart of this expansive complex of buildings. The tour guide explained how this was the original Mission Control used during the moon landing programs. Today, multiple Mission Controls exist in that building, used for different missions. The next stop on the tour was a hangar containing an Apollo era, Saturn V rocket.
The tram stopped and the tour guide invited us walk around and take our time exploring. The outside of the hangar displays several full-sized rockets, from America’s early space program. Various rocket engines are also displayed, showing the evolution of designs. The hangar is an enormous building, but still does not prepare you for the size of the rocket inside. Audible oohs and ahhs are common at the entrance. Inside, the Saturn V rocket lays almost completely on it’s side, allowing one to walk the length of it–almost 400 feet of it. The entrance is at the end of the building, near the rocket’s 5 engines. Words cannot accurately describe the presence of these engines. They are beautifully designed and engineered, but were designed to unleash and control a fury of intense energy, that would propel this massive steel structure into the heavens. The rocket is segmented into it’s different stages, allowing us to walk in between the stages at one point. It took a couple minutes to walk from one end of the building to the other. The engine and the capsule attract the largest crowds. This is an impressive display, and speaks to the monumental effort exerted in the quest to land on the moon.
Houston Space Center did an amazing job of displaying America’s space program. Online complaints about it being outdated simply reflect the truth about today’s space program: it is largely unmanned and aimed more at research. But, Houston Space Center did do an excellent job of showing how today’s programs and research is geared towards getting man beyond the moon and on to Mars, a far more monumental task than getting to the moon. America’s space program is alive and active, but its work is not grabbing headlines like men walking on the moon. I was glad my family and I got to experience Houston Space Center, and will happily return, if I find myself in the big state of Texas.